TORONTO — TORONTO -- They were facing the American League's most dominant pitcher and the possibility of a third straight shutout loss. Trailing 1-0 with only six outs remaining yesterday against Roger Clemens, the Orioles were all but done.
But only two innings away from both reaching a season's low point and tying a 40-year-old franchise record for ineptitude, something strange happened. Clemens vanished and the Orioles' offense returned.
In the biggest pick-me-up of the season, they then trashed a vulnerable bullpen for a 5-1 win over the Toronto Blue Jays that at least temporarily quieted fears of an offensive meltdown.
Thank Clemens, who said he was "spent." Thank Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, who listened to him. Thank Orioles starting pitcher Scott Erickson, who persevered to go 10-2. Thank B. J. Surhoff, who broke a 25 2/3 -inning scoreless streak with a game-winning single in the eighth inning.
"Thank goodness," said manager Davey Johnson. "I've been sleeping OK, but I'll be able to sleep better after this one."
Two innings from suffering a third consecutive shutout for only the second time in franchise history, and the first time since July 29-31, 1957, the Orioles jumped on Clemens' exit after seven scoreless innings and 103 pitches.
Gaston cited Clemens' fatigue. The Orioles didn't care. They were too busy crawling Dan Plesac and Mike Timlin for five runs and seven hits in the last two innings.
Surhoff supplied the game-winner by reaching the left-handed Plesac for a two-out single to score Mike Bordick and Brady Anderson after Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro had struck out in a similar situation. For a day, at least, talk of needed offensive help was secondary.
"We're not sitting around here thinking about who they're going to bring in here," Surhoff said. "That's not my job. That's for someone else. My job is to make the most of whatever opportunity presents itself."
The opportunity was slow in arriving. Clemens struck out eight, including the last two hitters he had faced, and allowed only three runners into scoring position, two on stolen bases.
Erickson was almost as dominant and needed only 86 pitches in 7 1/3 innings. Erickson induced three double plays and was hurt only by Orlando Merced's two-out RBI single in the sixth inning that scored Otis Nixon.
"My guy threw the ball just as good," Johnson said. "He was just as dominant as Rocket in his own way, getting ground balls and having a low pitch count."
The Orioles (47-22) avoided their first three-game losing streak this season by winning for the fourth time when trailing after seven innings. It also allowed them to restore their lead over the New York Yankees to eight games.
"That was probably the biggest game of the year for us," said pitching coach Ray Miller. "The Yankees lost. That's a turnaround of two games there. Beating Clemens totally erased the win they had yesterday. It's a big turnaround win and Scotty was awesome."
Erickson outlasted the three-time Cy Young Award winner for his 10th win in 14 starts, but only the second in his past five. Jesse Orosco and Armando Benitez provided 1 2/3 innings of hitless relief.
Almost lost within the worry over lost offense is the rotation's lTC ability to deliver in a turbulent time. In the last three games, Jimmy Key, Mike Mussina and Erickson have surrendered only four earned runs in a combined 21 1/3 innings. However, the Orioles haven't scored against Carlos Perez, Pat Hentgen and Clemens in a combined 25 innings.
General manager Pat Gillick continues to search for a hitter and Johnson is wishing him well. Yet inside the clubhouse a group of professional hitters takes offense at the suggestion they are overmatched without Eric Davis and Chris Hoiles.
Yesterday ended a bruising eight-game stretch in which the Orioles had seen 10 Cy Young Awards (four by Greg Maddux, one each by Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Pat Hentgen, and three by Clemens) on the road. The Orioles won four of the starts, but failed to score in the first five innings of any. "If they can go get another hitter, great. If they can't, we'll take our shot with what we've got," Surhoff said.
Anderson waved off such questions Friday night. Upon further review yesterday he said, "If they can get Mark McGwire, tell them to go ahead and get him."
But the Orioles appear more interested in smaller fish. Ron Gant, Greg Vaughn and Darren Daulton appear the current leading candidates. Meanwhile, Gaston and Clemens were left trying to explain the starter's surprise departure.
"He was just exhausted," said Gaston. "That's a tough team you're facing over there. I know he had thrown only 103 pitches, but he was just completely tired from bearing down, battling so hard."
Added Clemens: "I was spent after the sixth. But when the guys scratched out a run in the seventh I wanted to get through another inning and put us six outs away from the win."
The Orioles rejoiced at his departure and afterward speculated about the motivation. Some recalled his Texas roots and wondered how June in Toronto could be so draining. Others wondered if he might be masking an injury.
Certainly his performance -- eight strikeouts and only three fly-ball outs -- suggested nothing serious. Clemens ended his day by striking out Tony Tarasco and Lenny Webster to end the seventh.
Of Clemens' sudden disappearance, Anderson admitted, "I was surprised, but I don't know what went into it."
Poof. Clemens left and the Blue Jays' lead quickly followed. After going 4-for-24 against Clemens, the Orioles were 7-for-13 against the Blue Jays' bullpen.
Plesac entered with left-handed batters hitting only .111 (3-for-27) this season. However, Clemens had allowed the first three hitters to face Plesac -- Bordick, Anderson and Alomar -- a combined 1-for-8.
The move to relieve him didn't take long to detonate. After falling behind Plesac 0-2, Bordick pulled a single into left field. Anderson then doubled into the right-field corner for the Orioles' first extra-base hit in 25 innings. "It seemed like our first hit in 25 innings," he quipped. Bordick stopped at third.
Plesac briefly appeared ready to squirm out of his mess when he struck out Alomar and Palmeiro. Rather than import closer Mike Timlin, Gaston had Plesac intentionally walk Cal Ripken to face Surhoff.
Surhoff entered yesterday batting .400 with runners in scoring position, highest on the team. He only helped his standing by yanking Plesac's second pitch into right field, scoring Bordick and Anderson for a 2-1 lead.
Bordick started a three-run ninth with a one-out single. Anderson and Alomar followed with hits and Palmeiro broke open the game with a bases-loaded single that cleared the bases when it skipped past Merced in right field.
Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays
Site: SkyDome, Toronto
Time: 1: 05 p.m.
TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 50/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Scott Kamieniecki (5-3, 3.94) vs. Blue Jays' Robert Person (2-4, 4.96)
Pub Date: 6/22/97